A Bigger Picture

Dunes

Several of my blogs concern a role I once had which was commonly known as ‘line up’. Briefly the job involved making all manner of preparations (‘line up’) required for the floating bookship MV Logos to visit ports. The vessel was crewed by a diverse group of 140 volunteers from 25 nations. It was owned and operated by an international Christian organisation. Click this tag ‘line upif wish to read other blogs which concern this role. 

In the following story the main character is LUM (‘line up man’ ). 

LUM had had some previous experience lining up for the ship in a number of ports in various countries. He had now been asked to get involved in another country and port. It would mean a new culture, foods and people. An enriching learning experience to which he was looking forward to. That the country was in a state of emergency due to recent happenings did not seem to figure much in his thinking. In retrospect perhaps this should have been considered more.

Once he arrived in the country LUM was partly based in the capital city trying to secure government permissions for the ship to come. This included getting access for the general public to come onboard. However he still had to make fairly regular trips to the coastal city where the ship was due to visit. This involved some hours bus ride through the desert. Endless sand dunes piled like waves in the sea. Sunglasses were essential. Sometimes needing pain killers to ease headaches from the bright light. Usually there was one stop in the middle of nowhere in particular. Most passengers then piled out to follow the call to prayer. It was a dramatic scene to watch. People bowing down on their prayer mats in the desert. 

Just getting into the port authority area took half a day as various passes were required. Many dealings such as this seemed to take much time. As far as passes were concerned they also needed renewing every week. Slowly LUM awakened to the fact that most things could get done much quicker by ‘greasing the palm’ of whoever was in authority. This way of getting business done seemed to reach into every service required. There were also times when both officials and other contacts changed their minds. Sometimes people were very positive about the ship coming. On other occasions the same people were, at best, ambivalent. LUM was told that on a previous visit of the ship a number of officials were annoyed by not being ‘rewarded’ enough. Maybe this explained the fluid nature of some people’s views. Asking for written permission for things was not always straightforward. LUM recalls offending one official by pressing for more than verbal assurances. Did not LUM see that he (the official) was an honourable man? That his word could be trusted.

This period in LUM’S life was in the days long before mobile phones. You could spend half a day or whole evening trying to make an international phone call. First of all you had to visit the telephone exchange. Then fill in a form to book the number and destination country with the operator. Then wait, and wait, much like you might in a doctor’s surgery. Eventually the operator beckoned you to go into a booth. At last you would be put through. 

As with port entry the process of phoning might be speeded up if extra money was involved. For LUM it presented a moral dilemma. It seemed that for large parts of the economy people in jobs were paid very poorly. In order to make a living there was an expectation that a job would also be an opportunity to get tips. When does a tip become a bribe? 

LUM’s time in the country coincided with the annual fasting period of the majority religion. He felt awkward not abstaining from food or drink during the day when most of the population was doing so. There is something about eating that is a communal and shared activity. He felt very antisocial eating out in public when others were not able to eat. Once he recalls eating in a restaurant in the early evening. Everyone else was sitting at table with untouched glasses of water. All patiently waiting for the signal when the day’s fast would be over. For LUM it was not pleasant to have a roomful of hungry, perhaps resentful, eyes watching him eat. He concluded it would be better to avoid such embarrassments and eat at more suitable times. 

Due to security issues the contact LUM had with colleagues living long-term in the country was very limited. LUM felt quite isolated. Any engagement with others often meant surreptitiously visiting houses. Usually one by one entering and leaving at widely separated times. Done ostensibly so as not to arouse suspicion. LUM was not sure such precautions meant much. On one occasion a colleague living in the country pointed to an apparently crippled beggar. He was sitting on the ground across the road from the house they were meeting in. LUM’s colleague said the man was often there. At the end of the day he would leave and walk away. His lameness miraculously healed. LUM was told the ‘beggar’ was employed to watch their house and report on comings and goings. Probably any precautions taken pandered more to the need to feel careful. 

Maybe LUM had led a sheltered life but one unpleasant experience was the awareness of being followed. One occasion whilst out walking comes to his mind. It was chilling to look over his shoulder and keep seeing the same person behind him. To confirm he was being followed he took random turns through the streets. Yes it was same person some distance behind. Whether LUM was slow or fast or whichever way he turned LUM appeared to be shadowed. Strangely once LUM accepted he was being followed he put it out of his mind.

After a number of weeks preparations the ship was due to come. Due to other commitments LUM had to leave the country some days before the actual arrival. However all preparations seemed to be in order. Other line up people had come and they would be around for the ship’s visit. 

The ship duly arrived in the port and the gangway lowered in anticipation of being open to locals. Within just a few hours the shipping agent gave a distressing message. He said the vessel had to leave port immediately and anchor in international waters. Apparently there was a threat. What really was going on LUM has never come to understand. The door to stay was firmly closed. What was clear was that the ship had nowhere to go for weeks with a crew of 140 sitting many miles offshore.

For LUM personally it was also disconcerting that several of the foreigners he had contact with were deported shortly after. 

This crisis of a ship with nowhere to go opened an unforeseen opportunity. In a matter of days a colleague was able to get permission for the ship to visit another place. Somewhere that up till then had not been thought possible.

Many years later LUM reflects on this whole experience. He believes there is a bigger picture. Behind well intentioned plans that seem to come to nothing God is working out his purposes.

The Big Picture** by Elisabeth Grant

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

‭‭Romans‬ ‭8‬:‭28‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

** elisabethgrantart.com

Endings and Beginnings

Cherry blossom

After 2 years in Japan my wife and I felt our time there was coming to an end. Our task had been to represent Operation Mobilisation (OM) in the country. OM was the Christian organisation we worked for. The work engaged us with people, churches and other groups throughout the land.

We also spent time with Japanese of many ages and backgrounds through teaching English. The cost of living compared to Europe was very high so we needed the extra income. It was an opportunity to meet and engage meaningfully with people we would not ordinarily meet. I have written a bit more about this in Japan – Anyone for English

Our commitment to working in Japan was coming to an end. The thinking was that we would establish some things but then hand over the work to Japanese and others who would lead the work longer term. Other groups with more experience had said it was difficult for a westerner over 30 to master the language. We had therefore decided when we first went to think of a 2 year commitment. And so it was. We then passed on the baton, as it were, to others to develop things further. It is heartening today to see how the work there has grown over the years. It was a privilege to be a part of the story. There had been challenges and difficulties. Our main memory though was of an enriching, rewarding time which we look back on fondly.  

On the practical side we either sold or gave away most things. One family kindly took us for a night to a spa hotel in the mountains which was a real refreshment when our home became very primitive (i.e. no chairs, tables or bed!). It also reminded us that there are places of solitude and quiet in Japan! Our last few days in Nagano were enjoyably spent in our landlady’s home…May 10th, the day of our departure, came. Tears were shed. It had been one of the hardest times of our lives but these thoughts were lost in an overwhelming sense of God’s grace. Left to ourselves we’d have left prematurely. He had taken us through the difficulties and given the strength to persevere when all seemed lost. We were able to leave with a sense that God’s hand would continue to be on what we had been initiating. Japanese were becoming more involved which had long been our prayer. We know not when or if we can visit these distant shores again but we do know that we have left a part of our lives there. It seems that in God’s work our hearts often seem to be broken only to be mended and enlarged again. —Extract from letter to friends Sept 1994.

Our next steps after leaving were uncertain. Initial plan was to return to Europe. Then probably settle in either of our home countries, Sweden or the UK. Flying in to London in the spring of 1994 felt a little strange. We had got used to crowded living. It sounds strange now but flying from Tokyo to London seemed like being transported to a rural idyll. So much less traffic and far fewer crowds of people. From the air at least there seemed plenty green fields. So much space! It definitely felt less stressed. 

On our initial return we were part of a 10 day leadership course held by our organisation. It took place in West Watch, a country house on the outskirts of London. There were 11 of us, a comfortable number. Most participants we knew from previous times on MV Logos, India and Europe. A very welcome time of renewing friendships, spiritual refreshment and learning. It was just what we needed – a kind of buffer as we reoriented back to the west. 

We then spent the summer of ‘94 with each of our families in Sweden and the UK. All the time wondering what our next steps would be. Changing environment was nothing new but was still not easy. It was one thing as a single person to live a somewhat itinerant lifestyle. To sustain that as a couple was different

My 17 years with OM had taken me to live and work in about 70 countries. The last ten of those years was as a married couple. When we left Japan my wife and I had lived in 8 homes on 3 continents. We had experienced many blessings. Absolutely no regrets. However as the Bible says ‘there is a time for everything**’. We needed some stability. Moving home as well as adjusting to a new country or culture takes up much energy. Maybe it was our time to be more settled. 

In September we attended OM’s annual conference looking for fresh direction and inspiration. None came. Sometimes doors close. There were several possibilities within our organisation (at one point 12!) but none seemed right. We took it as a signal to step into a new time of life.

Sometimes the way ahead is not clear

In one sense this was saying goodbye to a way of life we had become accustomed to. Also it was a farewell to many colleagues around the world we had come to know over the years. However in another way our commom faith in Jesus’ promises meant there would be no permanent goodbyes. Bonds formed through working together for a common purpose would remain. A precious hope that transcends time and our life circumstances. 

So in the autumn of 1994 we moved to Scotland. We had no direction as to what to do next or where to live. An uncertain, difficult time. For the first time in 5 months we stayed on our own for 2 weeks, house sitting for a couple on holiday.

It was around then that a couple we were friends with got in touch. They had been supporting us in our work with OM. He was a trustee with Prison Fellowship Scotland. Would I be interested in working with prisoners, ex-offenders and their families? Wow, that certainly came as a bolt from the blue. Up till then I had virtually no experience of this kind of work. My initial reaction was no. I was still emotionally attached to OM. However after a short time realised that this was the next step. Another friend arranged for a flat we could initially stay in. It was the beginning of a new chapter in life, work and home for both of us. Maybe the subject of a future blog.

** Ecclesiastes 3 verse 1a

A Thread Runs Through It

From 1990-92 my wife Elisabeth and I lived in Sweden. We moved from the UK and ‘the idea’ was to be settled for a while in my wife’s homeland. By living in the country I would hopefully improve on my Swedish and get to know her family and background. With over 30 years of hindsight ‘the idea’ looks to us like something that fitted into place. A part of some pre-planned progressive journey through life. In reality at the time we didn’t know where this was leading. We had no idea that it would be for 2 years, we didn’t know that this would subsequently lead on to us going to Japan for 2 years.

Maybe it is an illusion to look back and think we can see life fitting together like some sort of jigsaw. It is a comfort to me to know that Abraham, a man of faith, when called from the familiar “went without knowing where he was going”. Hebrews 11 vs 8.

My wife’s family had a business that was in its 3rd generation of making shirts. Her grandmother had started the business in her kitchen. I was amazed to discover how family chats with Elisabeth’s siblings could go on for hours where they would passionately discuss the finer points of shirt collars, cuffs and various types of fabric. Cotton and linen most definitely in and nylon or polyester totally out of the picture.

The family took great care and pride in the quality of its product. A company motto was ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten’. It challenged my more pragmatic and pseudo utilitarian approach to things. Their approach bore fruit and the firm had an international distribution network selling to the most prestigious retailers. 

To pay the bills I got a job in the shirt factory as a warehouseman. It certainly was a steep learning curve learning the many variations of shirt. This was in the days of not so much automation. Every order hand picked from shelves and packed in boxes. To avoid time and effort roaming around the aisles of shirts you needed to remember where things were. The latest seasonal collection, the various collar types, sizes and colour ranges. Short arm, long arm, business, recreational etc. I was helped by two long term staff who had decades of experience.

None of the staff spoke English so I was immersed in Swedish. To add to the linguistic intensity Swedish national radio was played factory wide all day. All good you might say. One of my work colleagues however had a very strong local dialect and she was given to using slang words. I was duly corrected by Elisabeth if too much influenced. I also needed to be careful when a certain delivery driver would call to pick up consignments. Every second word it seemed was a swear word. He wasn’t the best tutor.

There was a very stable workforce and a few had even worked there 50 years. Living in the surrounding villages most also knew one another outside of work. Whether it was in church, community or sports clubs people’s lives seemed integrated with one another. I now live in a large city where anonymity is prevalent. There is an attraction to the idea of community that village or small town life appear to engender. Perhaps that is another illusion!

The factory work routine was similar most days. Occasionally though there was a need for an urgent delivery of shirts. The job would involve driving a car or van load of shirts north to somewhere in central Sweden.

It was an adventure to take off into what for me were unexplored parts of this large and scarcely populated country. Especially in the cold of winter it was special to traverse great swathes of forest. The stark, still beauty of a winter wonderland. The wonderful pallet of deepening blue as the weak sun sets through the trees. And yes the solitude. Stopping for coffee in a remote countryside café and practicing my fledgling Swedish was the ‘icing on the cake’. No pun intended but coffee usually goes with cake in Sweden and is called ‘fika’. 

Sunset over Lake Sämsjön

These journeys were not all serene as also needed to keep an eye out for elk (moose) crossing the road. There was the danger of maiming or killing the animals. Their large weight and size could also do serious damage to a vehicle.

Swedish employment laws were generous so as a foreigner I had the right to some paid time off each week to study Swedish formally. My learning included attending an adult education centre in the town. The people in my class of about 20 consisted mainly of political refugees from lands that most other western countries did not give asylum to. A second category were people of Finnish descent whose families had migrated after the 2nd World War. Despite many years in Sweden or even being born there some spoke poor Swedish and wanted to improve. And then there was me, an outlier. I seemed to be the only one who hadn’t experienced political oppression or family migration through war. 

What struck me most about the class was how small the world can seem to be at times. One lady remembered me visiting her town in the southern Philippines several years earlier. Another Sudanese woman knew a family I knew when I stayed in Khartoum in 1982. Two connections in a random class of 20! It is said that if we could trace through all our relationships we would only be 5 or 7 people away from anyone in the world.

Day’s end.

Japan – Anyone for English?

Lake Nojiri, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. A popular resort area.

For almost 2 years from 1992-94 my wife Elisabeth and I lived in the city of Nagano, Japan. We were there working for an international Christian organisation. Both of us had visited Japan previously for shorter visits and had enjoyed getting to know its people and culture a little bit. This time however was to be different as we would be there for much longer. Aside from representing our organisation the work included working closely with a Japanese pastor (minister). He led a church, Grace Chapel, which we got involved in. There was also an English language school he had started.

During our time there we found the cost of living was much higher than western Europe. In order to make ends meet we both taught English at this school. This was sometimes in the school itself, a log cabin on outskirts of city. More often though it was in people’s homes and workplaces. Our students were a very varied demographic. 3 year olds (yes 3!) whose mothers were keen for their children to get ahead by learning English. Japanese tech company executives wanting intensive crash courses before being sent on assignments to the UK. The lessons were at 9pm at end of their workday. Lessons at train stations for Japanese Railway staff. My wife had a similar eclectic range of pupils which included Japanese housewives and World War 2 veterans.  

Every now and then I would drive 2-3 hours in a 4×4 pick up truck to a town in the mountains. It was to visit a traditional ‘onsen’ (spa) hotel to teach its employees. Entering the hotel lobby I would be greeted by rows of staff bowing. On occasion the welcome would include being presented with a cup of tea sprinkled with gold leaf. Yes it made you feel special but can’t say the taste was great. I usually had lunch after the lesson. The break was only 5 minutes so you ate very fast. One example of the incredible work discipline.

Another regular teaching assignment was to the staff of a nightclub bar before they started their evening shift. It was more just chatting as a group in English than any lesson.

All these varied interactions gave us an insight into the life and culture of ordinary Japanese. We did not have special qualifications to teach English but it seemed enough that we were from overseas. Unlike more cosmopolitan Tokyo the foreigners (‘geijin’) in Nagano were few and far between. Even with a population of 400,000 it felt quite provincial compared to Japan’s mega capital city. Sometimes a week or so could go by without seeing another foreigner in the street. Indeed our presence could sometimes cause consternation. My wife recalls meeting a man who fell off his bicycle into a ditch, such was his shock at seeing a foreigner. On another occasion a husband and wife invited us to their home. We were the first non-Japanese to ever enter their house. The lady had spent 14 years learning to become a tea master. It was a special honour for her to perform a tea ceremony for us.

We lived in what was a very small terraced house. A typical family home in the district we were in. It became our home and gave us many happy memories. Our dwelling was in the Miwa district of the city. Within walking distance from the famous Zenkoji Buddhist temple, which millions of pilgrims visited every year.

Summer view from balcony
Winter

Despite the country’s embrace of technology and the modern world many Japanese homes did not have central heating. Most houses were still heated by paraffin heaters and cooking was done on bottled gas. Many urban areas also did not have centralised sewage. Our home was fairly traditional and we sat on tatami (straw) floors. The traditional way of sitting was hard on the back and knees. Instead we would mainly sit in armchairs that had no legs but would support your back. In winter during the night the paraffin heaters would need to go off to avoid breathing in toxic fumes. With the very thin walls and poor insulation any heat quickly dissipated. I slept with a towel wrapped around my head to keep it warm. The Japanese style duvet was super warm though.

The winter weather brought plenty of snow and skiing was popular in the hills surrounding the city. Nagano was to be the venue for the Winter Olympics in 1998. It was not all wintry. The summers in contrast were extremely hot and humid, especially in August.

The lazy man’s way of sitting on tatami!

Another way of keeping warm was to soak in a Japanese bath. We had a domestic one in our house. This entailed sitting in a deep, square shaped bath with only your head exposed. The water was far hotter than western baths would be. Heat was regulated by gas burners underneath. Same principle as when you use a gas hob to heat soup or boil an egg. Getting in this was a skill as too much movement meant pain. Trick was to slip in and be as still as possible. My fear was of nodding off and being gently boiled. An alternative was to go to a public bathhouse. Some non-Japanese friends felt this was a great way to get to know people. Everyone was much more talkative and informal than if you met someone in the street.

Every 6 months or so an unusual event would happen. A notebook would drop through our letterbox. For 2 weeks the Grants were now responsible to arrange and report on the neighbourhood’s general rubbish collection. A shared responsibility for everyone living in the area. I would excitedly rise to the challenge of filling in the logbook ‘rubbish’ report. As I’ve indicated in a previous post (‘Becoming Like a Little Child’) we did try to learn a bit of Japanese. Filling in the log book report was indeed a challenge with my very limited range of Japanese characters. Fortunately it was not too complex. A least it was a lot easier than my other written challenge – filling in Japanese tax returns. The ‘rubbish’ report included a description of the weather at time of pick up (cloudy, wet, sunny etc.). Also note if rubbish collectors had omitted to pick up anything. Usually nothing to report as job was so well done, everything was spotless. Occasionally there was something small like a cigarette butt. It was expected to be reported and guiltily wondered if I got some rubbish collector in trouble. Practical tasks when we were on rota also included putting down a board on the roadside for people’s rubbish to be laid on. This was to only be done in early morning exactly 30 mins before bin men arrived. Then promptly removed immediately after they had been. During that short time period everyone scurried out to deposit their general household rubbish on the board. Once these 2 weeks of civic duty were done said logbook was plopped through letterbox of our neighbour. This task exemplified to me the tremendous collective responsibility and discipline of the Japanese. Speaking of rubbish the recycling was more advanced then (nearly 30 years ago!) than it currently is in the UK!

Most of the time we drove a Toyota van. 8 year old vehicles, whatever their model, had no resale value, and often were then exported to other countries in East Asia. We had a good 8 year old plus vehicle for which the only cost was the road tax. Most vehicles were built to last 12 years so the van still had many miles in it. Several vehicle models I had not seen elsewhere, made only for the Japanese market. They often tended to be narrower to fit the roads better. Driving was often a stressful experience. Unlike Tokyo where road signs were often both characters and phonetic the Nagano signs were only in Japanese characters. This meant you had to memorise how they looked even if you didn’t understand. Traffic was nearly always very heavy and on small roads. The sheer weight of traffic made for rutted carriageways in many places. The incessant traffic made the roads like sunken railway tracks.  

One place where Japanese manners and service orientation excelled was filling your tank. Pulling into the garage forecourt you would sit in the vehicle and hand over your keys to an assistant. While you sat in the car or maybe perused the forecourt shop the assistant would fill your tank, take the footwell rubbers out of the car and powerwash them. He would also wash your front and back windows. When all was done you would be handed back your keys and the said assistant would then wave you out to the road by flagging down the traffic so you could leave. It made you feel special and a bit more relaxed to hit the traffic again! 

Relationships with people, however brief, often entailed the giving and receiving of presents. How much we as foreigners were expected to partake in this was difficult to gauge. We did try to a degree but had to be careful of the perceived value of gifts so as not to get into an escalating sense of obligation! Often the gifts themselves were not really expected to be used. It was funny to find homes with cupboards full of gifts that would be recycled on to others. Receiving presents also was used in subtle ways to influence behaviour. One time a local builder came to our house and presented us with a gift of towels. This we were told was because he was going to be making a noise doing construction work nearby. On the surface it felt a kind, considerate gesture. However enduring all the noise that was to come was a different matter. It made it harder to complain having received the gift!

A short blog does not do justice to 2 years of dwelling in what for us was a very different world. I haven’t touched on the main reason we were there for which was working with churches and Christians. Maybe another blog sometime. These experiences and others gave us a little window into this ancient and, at times, inscrutable culture. I recall once a Japanese telling me that foreigners are 20/80 people. They will partake of about 20% of the culture and ways but are excluded from 80%. Whether that is true or not is a moot point. It is certainly correct that many things happened around us that we could not understand. There were also times we were not understood. Japanese people taught me to look beyond a western worldview. There are other valid and sometimes wiser ways of perceiving the world we live in. Respect for elders and the individual’s responsibility and commitment to the group are a few that come to mind. The practice of bowing when meeting people became strangely familiar. So much so that on returning to Europe for a while it felt quite disrespectful not to bow.

The language school we taught from was called ‘Logos’. This was the same name given to the ship that had been my home for many years. Logos means ‘Word’ in Greek and is used by the apostle John to describe Jesus’ coming to the world. 

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.

John 1 verse 14.